One generation’s superstition is another’s search for meaning.
This story first appeared in the January 11, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Often stereotyped as a generation insistent on transparency, Millennials have embraced the unreal and surreal in the form of practices that those in Generation X might dismiss as quackery — magic, witchcraft, astrology, crystal therapy, chakras, energy healing and the like. That paradoxical quest for magical powers has spilled over into beauty marketing. Within the past year, a host of beauty products marketed with magical overtones has materialized in retail stores patronized by trend-obsessed youth.
“New-age practices in general are being embraced and reinvented by the Millennial generation, not only as consumers, but as new brands being launched,” said Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group. “There seems to be a big growth in appreciation for less scientific and more holistic remedies, qualities that link to well-being.”
At Catbird and Friends in Brooklyn and their commercialized counterparts Urban Outfitters and Free People, the beauty assortment better resembles trinkets from a fortune teller’s shop than cosmetics. Products with curious-sounding monikers like Captain Blankenship Mermaid Sea Salt Spray, Precious Skin Elixirs Moonstone Rejuvenation Elixir and Cosmos face oil are merchandised alongside a menagerie of tarot cards, Palo Santo sticks and piles of crystals.
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It is a fortuitous digression, considering Millennials are known for demanding proof of authenticity from brands. But young consumers are apparently so unimpressed by big scientific claims that when it comes to beauty, they’d rather turn to the occult than be lectured about lines and wrinkles.
“The glamour of otherworldly promises or real new-age practices such as astrology, crystals and so on…it’s sort of grown out of well-being and the meditation movement,” Greene said.
“It’s a really powerful counter trend to everything that’s happening technologically, and the younger end — the [digital] screen generation — they are looking for meaning,” said Erica Orange, executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Future Hunters. “[Because] if you’re spending so many of your waking hours perfecting your image on Snapchat, what does it really mean?”
Enter products that claim to provide calming, transcendent beauty benefits — Aquarian Soul Magic Oil, Moon Juice Spirit Dust and Little Moon Celestials Sleep Come Easy Mist. Sandoval’s Interior Aromatics sprays each contain a crystal, charged with energy under the full moon. Sangre de Fruta is a botanical body-care line with formulas based on mystical ancient remedies. Rituel de Fille’s makeup is inspired by “the magical side of natural ingredients.” It promises “spellbinding natural color” with its Ash and Ember Eye Soot, Enchanted Lip Sheers and Rare Light Luminizer. The founders of natural skin-care line Earth Tu Face in 2016 launched Cosmos, a mass diffusion line for the Millennial customer, with packaging designed to reflect the moon cycle.
Mainstream beauty companies, eager to appeal to the soulful side of their most demanding consumer base, have joined in on the Age of Aquarius reunion tour. This year, Viktor & Rolf is set to launch its Magic fragrance collection, Fresh and Julep are extending their Zodiac-themed collections and Tarte last summer teased an impending launch on Instagram — fantasy-themed brushes the social-media-savvy makeup brand dubbed “mythical magic makers.”
But don’t expect Millennials to surrender their selfies just yet.
“They’re basically inhabiting two personas at once,” said Orange. “They’re still going to be fully immersed in this digital world, but at the same time, they’re looking for things that are a complete 180 from that. The same person might be Snapchatting at 6 and 7 a.m. and at the same time they’re using Headspace and meditating.”
Mainstream interest in the unknown is proving convenient for brands that historically have been a little witchy.
In its first iteration in the early Aughts, Tony & Tina Vibrational Remedies was a popular color cosmetics line sold at prestige retailers such as Nordstrom and Sephora. Rooted in the concept of color therapy, cofounder Cristina Bornstein said her brand’s spiritual parlance faced mostly indifferent customers — more interested in the brand’s glitter lip glosses than the healing powers of color therapy — and some pushback from Tony & Tina’s corporate owner, first Cosmopolitan Cosmetics and finally, Procter & Gamble.
“When we got bought, we were told ‘don’t mention this, don’t mention that,’” Bornstein said. The brand ultimately folded in 2005.
But late last year proved an apt time for Bornstein and partner Anthony Gill to relaunch Tony & Tina Vibrational Remedies as an aromatherapy-based beauty line, with products such as the Empress Blend oil and Healthy Aura body spray influenced by Bornstein’s work as a reiki healer.
“Now, people have much easier access to these alternative remedies.…Maybe they want it all natural, maybe they want energy put into it…they’re allowing themselves to explore things that they haven’t before,” Bornstein said. “In our new incarnation, we’re a lot more free with our language.”
Retailers have taken note. Most of the assortment will enter Credo, the natural beauty emporium, early this year.
“Consumers are more accepting [now],” agreed Orange. “Things that used to seem gimmicky a decade ago…all these things are penetrating the mainstream consumer consciousness. It’s not like, ‘Oh this reiki healer, she’s a weirdo.’ It’s ‘Oh, cool, she’s tapping into something.’”
It’s not only that consumers are more accepting — there are some selfish benefits to exploring New Age wisdom as well. Astrologist Susan Miller who runs the popular Astrology Zone web site and app, noted that Millennials are drawn to the practice because it can be an opportunity to learn more about themselves. “It’s that whole trend for individualization…like how you can design your own sneakers [now],” Miller said. “Astrology can really address your own proclivities.”
Fresh, a Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy-owned beauty line, tapped Miller as a collaborator for its Zodiac soap collection, introduced this year. Miller wrote a horoscope booklet to be sold with each soap.
“There’s this trend of customization and personalization in the marketplace,” agreed Lucy Perdomo-Ruehlemann, chief marketing officer at Fresh. She noted the Zodiac collection sold out a year’s supply within four months, and the brand revived it during the holiday season. “Consumers really responded to [a promise] of insight about their futures.”
Perdomo-Ruehlemann noted that the collaboration was particularly successful in China, which she attributed to Chinese Millennials and their obsession with the zodiac. The brand is set to introduce more products in its zodiac collection next year, and will up its stock levels to avoid another sellout.
Greene said in 2017, President-elect Donald Trump’s America will keep the trend alive. “There will be more of it as an antidote to the uncertain time that we’re experiencing now.”
The search for meaning doesn’t stop with Millennials.
For Generation Z, “the trend is manifesting in fantasy, rather than well-being,” said Greene, who noted that elements such as fantastical storytelling and experiential retail will be key in talking to the next generation. The fantasy concept is already beginning to take hold, evidenced by products such as Too Faced’s iridescent Unicorn Tears lipstick crème, Wet n Wild’s Rainbow Highlighter and YouTubers touting “unicorn eye makeup” and “crystal geode” lips. Last year, Lush introduced a spa treatment called The Planets, which consists of a palm reading alongside a facial and massage. And this year it will launch Tales of Bath, where the spa-goer is read a fairy tale over a loudspeaker while ensconced in a bathtub.
There is also Storybook Cosmetics, a trio of sisters in Nebraska who develop products inspired by fairy-tales and fantasy fiction like “Harry Potter.” At the beginning of the year, the brand said it would issue a limited-edition run of its popular “wizard wand” makeup brushes, to be sold on the Storybook Cosmetics web site. And on Instagram in January, the brand revealed intentions to develop makeup inspired by “Game of Thrones” — if only HBO would license out the content.
Wendy Liebmann, ceo of WSL Strategic Retail, concurred that the concept of magic and technology is continuing to meld for Generation Z, who may be more interested in unicorn makeup and mermaid hair than aligning their chakras. “With Gen Z, there’s the aspirational factor [of fantasy],” said Liebmann. “They’ve literally grown up with technology in their hands. In some ways they’re on the coattails of the Millennials, looking for magic in their beauty life.”